Naples Fontanelle Cemetery

We said goodbye to our lovely apartment in Rome and exited through the tiny door cut out from the big door and caught our first Italian train to Naples. Here we found our next apartment which was again accessed through a tiny door cut out of a huge door. That just seems to be how things are done over there.

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Our tiny Roman door

Naples was the first and only time we stayed with a host family while overseas, and it was an amazing experience. I did have a bit of trouble getting my head around their names though, Alessandro, Antonella, Antonio, and their dog Antea. I would definitely give them an A!

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A street in Naples

Anyway, lame jokes aside, Naples itself was certainly an experience. We sort of formed a love-hate relationship with that city. I would describe Naples as dirty, loud and polluted. The narrow cobblestone streets were constantly wet with water dripping from the clothes hung out to dry. There was rubbish, dog poop, and cigarette butts everywhere. To the point where we started describing the streets we travelled on by the dog poo on them, rather than their names. However, I would also describe Naples as friendly, exciting, and entertaining. The people here were so welcoming and happy. They sleep in small apartments built haphazardly on top of each other, but everyone seems to live on the street. Wherever you go there are people chatting with each other, sitting in doorways, and hanging out of windows just watching the world go by. In the evening we saw a crowd of men standing around watching a soccer match and cheering loudly. Then there’s the traffic. If you think traffic in Rome is bad, try crossing the road in Naples. Just walking from place to place was an adventure in itself. Also in Naples we experienced children letting off firecrackers pretty much every night. We even saw a very young child lighting firecrackers and dropping them off his apartment balcony. We were a bit more careful about what we walked under after that.

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Entering the Fontanelle Cemetery

After we arrived, we headed out to the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle (The Fontanelle Cemetery) in the Valley of the Dead. This huge cave was the result of years of people chipping away at the tufo (a type of porous rock made from volcanic ash) to use for building. Since the 1500s this cave has been used as a burial place for paupers, or for the many who died in plagues, famines or earthquakes.

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One of the many piles of bones

Neapolitans with money were buried in their churches, but the poor were buried in caves like this. The rich could also end up here, since the undertakers at the churches would throw old remains into caves such as this one in order to make space for new burials. In the 1600s, there was a plague in Naples, which had a severe impact on their population. At this time, there were many bodies to deal with, so they were also put in this cave. It seems that remains were left here right up until the 1800s.

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Rows of skulls lining the walls, with little wooden boxes housing adopted skulls

In 1872, a priest named Gaetano Barbati had the bones exhumed and catalogued. They were placed in neat piles against the walls. This site was considered sacred, so a church was built at the entrance.

 

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A closed off area for worship inside the cemetery

Soon people started visiting and formed relationships with the remains, cleaning them, naming them, and leaving offerings for them. These people formed a cult who devoted themselves to the skulls, adopting them as their own relatives and bringing pillows for them to rest on, building little cases for the skulls, leaving flowers and praying for the owner of the skull. Apparently, people would also ask for favours in return, and as they were cleaning their skulls, they would watch for signs of sweat (condensation), which indicated that the soul would grant them their favour.

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In 1969, the Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Naples ordered the cemetery to be closed to put a stop to these rituals which he viewed as fetishism. The cemetery remained closed and neglected until 2002 when restoration began and it was reopened in 2006 for two days each year.

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A wall of femurs

Luckily for us, there were protests in 2010 that resulted in the Fontanelle Cemetery being open full time to the public. Access to the cemetery is free, but donations are welcome, as was the case with most historical cemeteries we visited in Italy.

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A dark skull lined corridor leading to a statue of Gaetano Barbati.

The cave was huge and the walls were high and thick. There were also not many other visitors while we were there, and the dimly lit area was so silent. The cemetery was a fascinating, eerie, and sobering place to visit.

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